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Friday, June 21, 2024

Ajax have Champions League ambitions thanks to their homegrown talent

Teams rise and fall rapidly in the fast-developing world of European women’s football.

Debutants Manchester United exited the Champions League in the second round this season, losing 4-2 to Paris Saint-Germain on aggregate in October. Arsenal dropped out earlier than that, knocked out on penalties by Paris FC after a 3-3 draw at the start of September.

But new girls on the block Ajax — having qualified for the group stage for the first time this year — are soaring.

The Dutch side have taken the competition by storm but, after beating Dinamo Minsk (3-0 in a one-off first-round tie) and FC Zurich (8-0 on aggregate), the path to European success got harder.

Ajax were drawn in the tournament’s ‘group of death’ (Group C), with sides who all either won or were runners-up in their domestic leagues last season: Bundesliga and Serie A champions Bayern Munich and Roma, and PSG, who finished second in the Division 1 Feminine. All three also made last year’s Champions League quarter-finals.

Yet with four of the six matches played, Ajax top the group. 

Having beaten PSG 2-0 and Bayern 1-0 in Amsterdam, a win in Paris today (Wednesday) would see them through to the quarter-finals. They could even top the group with a game to spare if Roma and Bayern draw in Italy.

Ajax celebrate beating Bayern in November (Gerrit van Keulen/ANP via Getty Images)

It is some rise for a team only founded in 2012 and yet, at the start of this season, Ajax announced that manager Suzanne Bakker’s contract will not be extended when it runs out next summer.

The 37-year-old was part of Ajax’s academy before becoming first-team coach at the start of last season. She led them to their first Eredivisie title since 2017-18, and on this remarkable Champions League run.

“When there is a contract ending in summer, I think, ‘What do we need next year and what can we do to grow?’,” says Daphne Koster, Ajax’s head of women’s football, who took on the role in 2017 after her playing days as a defender came to an end.

“We have an ID, a vision, about how we want to do things in future. I made a decision that is good for now but next season, we need something else.”

Bakker will not be kept on for next season (Nesimages/Raymond Smit/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Speaking to The Athletic before this week’s away game against PSG, Koster said: “When I look back, there is such a big difference between 2012 and now. When I was a player I asked myself, ‘How can I change the direction of this club?’.

“When they gave me the role, I talked to a lot of people within the club. What are the problems? What is the solution (for example) of how you grow the number of fans? Why are you only focusing on the men and not the women? It was a lot of questions and conversations.”

Koster, who made 139 appearances for the Netherlands between 1997 and 2013 and captained the national team, has steered the women’s side through turbulent waters, having been at the helm throughout the investigation into the behaviour of Marc Overmars, who was Ajax’s director of football, towards female staff. Overmars was dismissed in February 2022 for “a series of inappropriate messages sent to several female colleagues”.

Appearing in a documentary series titled On the Way to the Top, Koster spoke candidly about her experience of Ajax’s culture.

“You want to belong somewhere and not feel that a large part of the environment would rather not embrace you. Women were not seen as part of football or the club,” she said in the programme.

“You will behave accordingly and keep our mouths shut or we better not discuss it. This is the culture that women have to deal with in football. If I want to look at myself honestly in the mirror, I cannot avoid this question.“

Koster was keen to change Ajax’s culture: “This incident has made it top of my mind at Ajax; that we are aware, recognise the culture and acknowledge it, and that the next step is that something will be done about it. Changing a culture takes time and courage.

“It’s much bigger than that one incident. But the will to change is there. I hope that, in a few years, we can look back with pride and see that Ajax has been leading this.“

Now, one of the biggest priorities for Koster and the club is youth development. Ajax have long been renowned for the quality of their homegrown players on the men’s side of the game, and there is a similar intention with the women’s team.

“The (players) do it by themselves,” says Koster. “Not me. Not our trainer (coach).

Koster is a former Ajax and Netherlands captain (ANP via Getty Images)

I see the potential of a player and then help them to grow. You need a lot of trust.

“When you grow the player, you have to know how she is in her whole life — her feelings, how her family is, school, mentally, physically, all the things together. It’s not only what you see on the field, it’s also what’s in her head and around her home.”

Ajax’s Champions League squad have an average age is 23.6 years — the youngest in the competition.

American-born midfielder Lily Yohannes made history in November when, at 16, she became the youngest-ever player to start a group match in the competition; Romee Leuchter, 23, is averaging a goal per game in the Eredivisie this season and is one of the most in-form young strikers in Europe.

Koster is realistic about the lure of other countries when it comes to their emerging talent: Netherlands midfielder Victoria Pelova moved to Arsenal of the Women’s Super League last January for an undisclosed fee, having joined three and a half years prior from second-tier Dutch side ADO Den Haag.

“Victoria was ready to make the step,” she says. “It’s nice to move to another country — you learn. But it’s not good when you’re not confident.

Pelova is now a first-choice midfielder for Arsenal (Arsenal FC/Getty Images)

“We can’t hold onto top players — they move. You also see it on the men’s side.”

Fortunately for them, Ajax have a consistent stream of talent coming through, which makes players moving abroad less painful. Emerging players repeatedly have opportunities to learn and grow within the first team, particularly on the international stage — something helped by this run of good form in the Champions League. 

Ajax narrowly missed out on making the competition’s group stage last season, as Vivianne Miedema scored the only goal in the second leg in Amsterdam to ensure Arsenal won 3-2 on aggregate in the final round of qualifying. Koster feels experiences like that helped prepare the team for where they are now.

“When I saw the game against Arsenal, I thought, ‘Yes we can (go further). We can fix this’. Our way is not about buying players. The Ajax way is about youth players. We are good at developing players.”

Ajax have recruited several players signed from other clubs at older youth-level ages — Leuchter was signed from PSV Eindhoven as a 20-year-old, for example. With the opportunities younger players get there, a move to Ajax is attractive.

Bakker’s side are second domestically, seven points behind Twente, who are yet to drop a point in the first 11 games. But they are tantalisingly close to going further than any Dutch team has before in the Women’s Champions League, though Koster does not want to get ahead of herself.

“I’m not dreaming. I’m realistic,” she says. “We know what we have, what we can do in the club. I have hope.”

(Top photo of Romee Leuchter: ANP via Getty Images)

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